Director/writer/actor Brit Marling wrote a recent NYT op-ed declaring how fed up she is with strong female characters. (hat tip to The Mary Sue). Specifically that as an female actor, her choices were protagonist’s lover, protagonist’s parent or female butt-kicker. While that widened the options some, it didn’t widen them much, and the strong female template was extremely limited: “I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power … a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.” And that by emphasizing masculine traits, they make it difficult “for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong.”
I agree with Marling that it’s good to have a wide range of female protagonists. And that empathy and compassion should be acknowledged as strengths. But arguing that they are essentially feminine, or implying that a real female character has to have them, and that rationality, ambition and physical prowess are “masculine” — there we part company.
Certainly rationality is often coded as masculine, empathy and vulnerability as feminine. But I know women who are physicists, IT geeks, chemists, doctors, nurses and accountants all of which call for a lot of rationality. Showing women onscreen with “focused rationality” doesn’t read to me as “male in a woman’s body” it means getting away from stereotype and portraying what some women are like. Ditto for physical prowess and ambition; I’ve known women with those traits too. Marling feels that when she was ambitious as an investment banker and cared little for who got hurt by her financial movies, she “buried my feminine intelligence alive in order to survive.”
Female characters being just men with boobs is a criticism I’ve heard back since the 1970s (it may go back further). It’s one you can find on both the right and the left. There are right-wingers who believe female action heroes just aren’t realistic; I’ve read feminist critiques to the same effect (no real woman would ever choose violence to resolve a problem!). The logic frequently comes across just as much mired in stereotype as the kind of writing of women Marling critiques. I know women who practice a variety of martial arts, and women have been boxing since the 1700s, but these examples often don’t sway anyone. I’ve seen arguments lthat women who watch strippers/are ambitious in business/like physical combat are, as Marling says, burying their real femininity and adopting male standards. If they could find their true authentic selves, they wouldn’t do any of that stuff. Which effectively eliminates all counter-examples: they’re women trying to be men instead of women QED.
And the empathic woman can become a stereotype or a plot device: the nurturer who puts the hero back together, the one who shows compassion and mercy when the man wants to be ruthless. Though it’s clear that’s not the kind of role Marling wants to see more of.
I don’t really have a brilliant conclusion to take from all this. All we can do is write the characters, get female beta-readers (assuming “we” in this context is non-female), improve based on feedback and keep trying to do better.
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